It is difficult to believe that 20,000 people lived in the Mill Creek Valley, west of downtown. It was home to a large part of St. Louis’ African-American cultural life until it was demolished in the 1960s for urban renewal. There were over 40 churches at the heart of this cultural life, which was shared by thousands of people. All of them were demolished within a matter of a few years. Many of these congregations relocated to North St. Louis or other central corridor locations, while others simply stopped being there. These stories tell the story about African-American religious life in the city and how civic leaders can disrupt the lives and communities of the most vulnerable. These are just a few of the stories from these churches.
Union Memorial United Methodist Church was at the corner of Pine Street and Leffingwell. Despite having a front door facing Pine Street, its address was 208 North Leffingwell. The church, like many African-American institutions, had bought a pre-existing structure, the old Temple Israel. This had relocated west and vacated the older residential blocks west of Jefferson, which were built after Civil War. Union Memorial was founded in 1846 and is one of the oldest African American congregations in St. Louis. However, despite attempts to save the Mill Creek building by a newspaper article that was published at the time, Union Memorial built a beautiful new Modernist church in West End. It’s still a landmark and is located just south of Page Boulevard on Belt Avenue.
St. Paul A.M.E. Church also owned an address at North Leffingwell. 15), but it faced Lawton Avenue (No. St. Paul A.M.E., which was built by an African-American congregation in St. Louis, was the first such church. Surreal photos of the church alone in a deserted landscape surrounded by vacant lots and weed-choked land survive. It was one of the last structures to be demolished. It was located next to Mill Creek’s tallest building. The congregation attempted to purchase the building from the Land Clearance for Redevelopment Authority in 1964. The church was destroyed, and the congregation moved to Hamilton Avenue in West End.
Memorial Baptist Church, located at 2726 Pine Street was another church that has a rich history in Mill Creek. The Rev. Jasper Caston was the Sixth Ward alderman, at a time when African Americans were still uncommonly represented on the Board of Aldermen. Tragically, he was killed in a car accident in the vicinity of Hannibal in 1950. He was just 51 years old.
Mill Creek also had a Roman Catholic parish called St. Malachy’s. Although St. Malachy’s was lost to history in 1859 when it was demolished, it was almost a century old. It was originally founded in 1860 as an Irish Parish. As the area changed, it became an African American parish. The church was taken over by the Jesuits in 1941. Archdiocesan records reveal a fascinating and deeply moving exchange between Father Zimmerman, a Jesuit priest, and other Catholic officials as they watched his parishioners’ houses being demolished by the City of St. Louis. Someone even took the effort to record the history of Jesuit pastoral care in Latin.
Unfortunately, the Jesuits failed to make an impact on their African-American parishioners. Joseph Ritter, the archbishop of the Archdiocese at the time was well-known for his work in desegregating its schools and hospitals. However, even he didn’t have the power or the will to stop LCRA’s use of the eminent domain as it bought up St. Malachy parishioners’ houses. Father Zimmerman expressed his concern about the demolition of the modest homes of his parishioners; he looked at the numbers and realized that there wasn’t enough low-income housing. Where would his parishioners go? The archdiocese’s letter to him requesting the seizure of the church from the LCRA has been preserved. It explains in bureaucratic terms when the Archdiocese should turn over the property.
Looking through letters and newspaper articles, I was able to see that there was no central authority or planning in the Mill Creek redevelopment. One article states that a historic African-American church will be replaced with a housing development. The church was replaced by an industrial park a few years later. We know the fate of many of these demolished churches almost 70 years later: They are now vacant lots.
That is, many of these churches could still be standing, creating a sense of community and continuity. Yet, St. Louis’ civic leaders insist that all the city needs to renaissance is one more cleared plot of land.